Review: The Disarming Appeal of HBO’s Girls

At a point in the first episode of HBO’s Girls (which debuts tomorrow night at 10:30/9:30c), Lena Dunham’s Hannah suggests that she might be “the voice of [her] generation.”

It’s a clichéd statement, albeit one that Lena Dunham’s age and rapid rise to success within the entertainment industry have foregrounded within the discourse surrounding Girls. However, it’s also a statement that the show itself treats as a cliché, given the fact that Hannah is under the influence of drugs when she says it (and immediately realizes how pretentious it sounds even in her altered state). If her dream of being a writer is anything within the world of Girls, it’s a pipe dream, an idea that sustains her psychologically even as it does nothing for her financially.

I wouldn’t say that the show is about this, however. In fact, I’m not sure I’m comfortable saying what the show is about. While the show’s title suggests a broad investigation of young women, the universality it implies is undercut by the show’s reluctance to draw larger conclusions from these stories. It’s possible for cultural commentators to suggest this stands in for the experience of twenty-something white women living in New York City, but I’m not sure that the show itself ever makes the argument this is the experience for all of those women (or for all women in general).

In other words, Girls is a show about pretentious people, but I don’t find it particularly pretentious. Granted, HBO’s (successful) efforts to promote the show as a cultural touchstone have an air of pretension, but there is something very natural about the show itself that I found disarmed those larger expectations. Girls is a show based around situations more than “issues,” an incredibly isolated portrait of four young women at a very specific time, in a very specific place, and within a compelling televisual framework. Lena Dunham may not be the voice of a generation, but she’s a capable writer and director who has crafted a nuanced comic portrait of the drama of, if not everyday life, than a set of everyday lives, well worth watching.

While there is no question that Girls contains serialized elements, I’m having a tough time calling it serial. While each of the four main characters is given something approaching an arc, the way those arcs form feels cumulative without necessarily feeling like a complete narrative. At the beginning of each episode, it’s never entirely clear how much time has passed since the events of the previous episode, and the show isn’t particularly invested in exposition. There are clear narrative threads to follow, but they’re far from exhaustive, and some fairly big moments within those threads take place off-screen between episodes.

It creates the effect of snapshots highlighting particular moments or situations, with each episode telling one story that is derived from previous stories without being beholden to them. For example, while the results of the STD test in the show’s second episode are a part of the third, the consequential structure of the narrative doesn’t feel like the storyline is going to carry over into the next episode and become a recurring thread. It’s almost like an ephemeral seriality, drawing on previous events without necessarily building towards a larger narrative. While I became more attached to the characters over the course of the three episodes I watched, to the point where I enjoyed the episodes considerably more when rewatching them, the basic premise of the show remains entirely unchanged as though this were a more traditional sitcom.

It reveals a tension between the status quo and the episodic progression of the series, something that is equally tied to the show’s themes. The premiere introduces a number of complications that suggest the world we are first introduced to could soon disintegrate, but that world is more than willing to fight back. In one scene, Hannah’s roommate Marnie complains about how her boyfriend is smothering her with his kindness to the point that it repulses her, but in the next scene she corrects Hannah when the latter presumes it means they’re breaking up. While Hannah pleads with her parents to continue to give her the money necessary to allow her to maintain her lifestyle, the show at large reveals the sheer power of inertia in the hands of twenty-somethings still deciding what they intend to do with their lives.

In that sense, the show’s snapshots become a chance to observe these characters’ patterns of behavior more readily. Hannah’s friend Jessa’s approach has been to live a nomadic existence, constantly moving around the world to keep from feeling tethered to one location, while her virginal cousin Shoshanna reads self-help books and watches Sex and the City. Hannah continues to spend time with an abusive sex buddy, while Marnie continues to string along the aforementioned puppy dog boyfriend. While the show’s comedy often comes from how these situations unfold, the show’s “point” is in why they’re unfolding, larger questions that nonetheless feel very tied to these characters as opposed to a “generation” – while these stories are inevitably tied to broader concerns of age and gender, they quickly branch out – or, rather, branch in – to something more personal as the show progresses.

This is driven largely by some very strong execution. Dunham’s scripts are tightly written but loosely constructed, allowing scenes that are clearly serving a particular purpose to not seem purely functional in the moment. Dunham’s own performance is (as many other critics have noted) free of any vanity, and while the show gets a lot of mileage out of images like Dunham naked in a bathtub eating a cupcake there are also some more subtle moments that she captures equally well. The rest of the cast is equally compelling, although they are given somewhat less to do: this is Hannah’s show much as it is Dunham’s, and that means Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, and Zosia Mamet are given slightly less to do (although all acquit themselves well).

None of this is to say that everyone will like this show. Enough of the pretension surrounding the show’s cultural cache is evident in the text that some might not be able to take it at face value, while the show’s comic sensibility is almost always working towards dramatic goals that might not appeal to those looking for a broader comedy. However, what reservations I had about particular characters (like Kirke’s floaty Jessa, or Mamet’s bubbly Shoshanna) faded away the more time I spent in their world – they hadn’t changed, exactly, but I knew more about them, information the show brought to the surface without it ever feeling like contrived character building. While it may be hard to consider a show with this much critical commentary leading up to its premiere stealthy, there is a subtlety to the show’s larger aims that snuck up on me.

This is not to say that the show is always subtle. In the very first scene of the pilot, Hannah says something that’s clearly meant to be profound, intonating that she’s busy “trying to become who I am.” That statement stuck with me as I watched the following episodes, clearly an overarching thematic concern that we could trace through each of the characters. However, while Girls will occasionally drop an unsubtle reminder of this theme and others, the actual exploration of those themes rarely feels contrived. While a basic recounting of the plot might occasionally feel like a cliché-ridden exercise in the problems of privileged young women in New York City, the actual execution of those sequences transcends that larger framework through shrewd observational humor rather than broad cultural commentary.

Cultural Observations

  • You’re going to be hearing a lot about the sex scenes on this show, and they really are something different from what I’ve seen in the past – while a show like Tell Me You Love Me was built around showing “real sex,” it treated that as an opportunity for exploring the dark recesses of hedonism more than the awkward dynamics of human beings. There are some complex issues related to sex in the show, but there’s also a lot of humor, and the combination is incredibly compelling to witness (a word I’d use over watch, given the intimacy).
  • I enjoy the dissonance of Becky Ann Baker playing two such similar character type on such different shows, repeating the “Mother questioning her daughter’s life choice to live in New York City and try to be an artist” trope that she already played earlier this year in Smash. She’s much stronger here, primarily because the character is given an actual personality.
  • Guest stars don’t play a huge role in the show, but Kathryn Hahn shows up in the third episode alongside Tony nominee Andrew Rannells (Book of Mormon), who is particularly great as Hannah’s college boyfriend.


Filed under Girls

2 responses to “Review: The Disarming Appeal of HBO’s Girls

  1. Pingback: Today’s Links – April 16, 2012 |

  2. sevendecadesofme

    I agree about Girls. Upon first watching a few episodes I was really turned off, mostly dwelling on how self-absorbed these very privileged young lady characters are, considering the heavy issues alive in the world. But upon second viewing, my thoughts and feelings were along the same lines as yours. Good review!

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